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Six ways to improve your vegetable plot

16 September 2016

Otter Farm's Mark Diacono suggest six ways to get out of the gardening rut and do something different with your vegetable patch.

Instead of potatoes try growing unusual root vegetables, such as oca (pictured) or yacon.

Mix in edible ornamentals

If you've always grown your veg separately from your ornamentals, why not relax your border control and allow a few gorgeous and delicious edible migrants into the flower bed. 

Allow me to suggest three: the daylily’s (Hemerocallis spp.) ephemeral beauty is an invitation to eating the flowerheads. The flowers bloom and die within a day, so you’re only sparing them the indignity of decay if you pick them at their peak in late afternoon. 

Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus), a glossy-leaved bush, produces eye-catching, aromatic (though poisonous) flowers in good summers, while the bark is a spicy cinnamon substitute. 

Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) is a smallish shrub that has small pink-white bell flowers from late spring, ripening small blueberry-like fruit (Queen Victoria’s favourite) in early autumn. It may get knocked back by the cold but comes flying back in spring.

Find out more about edible ornamentals

Grow early potatoes

Homegrown maincrop potatoes are often little better than those you can buy, they occupy space for months and are at the mercy of blight. Why not grow delicious, expensive-to-buy early varieties such as Edzell Blue, Belle de Fontenay or International Kidney (aka Jersey Royal)? 

The more adventurous may like to try a couple of other South American tubers. Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) looks like a large baking potato yet tastes of green apples, pears and faintly of celery; rather than turning green, it sweetens in the sun. Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) looks like a rather jazzy new potato with its patches of red and pink. It has a gently sharp lemon flavour – not unlike sorrel – when freshly dug, and again, it sweetens in the sun. Both are delicious raw or cooked, unavailable in the shops and, happily, unaffected by blight.

Plant dwarf fruit trees

Make your garden more fruitful, whatever its size, by planting dwarf varieties of quince, peaches, apricots, pears, almonds and plums. These new small trees may grow to only 1.5m (5ft) or so and yet be very productive. Feed and water them well and they’ll be happy in a large container, too.

Sweet cicely

Sweet cicely

Plant unusual herbs

Why not plant some wonderful, lesser-known herbs to liven up your suppers, as well as your garden? 

Sweet cicely is as widely grown on the continent as it is overlooked in this country. Its gently aniseedy leaves and seeds enhance the flavour of other leafy herbs. It also gives the impression of sweetening sour flavours: add the leaves or seeds to rhubarb or gooseberries and you’ll be able to halve the amount of sugar you’d ordinarily use. 

Lovage is savoury to a fault, almost a vegetable stock in leaf form – so use it sparingly in soups and stews. Wrap leaves around a crumbly cheese (such as Lancashire) for a week or two to impact a wonderful savoury depth to the cheese. 

Lemon thyme carries a deep, authentic lemon tang that lends itself to pork or fruit salads in particular. Try it in cocktails, too. All three herbs are perennial and low maintenance.

Sow green manure

Most of us have parts of our garden that have (how shall I put this?) yet to meet our fullest imaginings for them. Sowing a flowering green manure such as phacelia will cover any bare areas you may have and looks wonderful. It will also protect and nourish the soil and attract beneficial insects until you get around to planting it as you’d like.

Find out more about green manure

Let some parsnips flower

If you’ve grown parsnips this year, do leave some to grow on for next year – they will flower beautifully. Cleve West used them in his Best in Show Chelsea Garden in 2011. Having done this once you’ll find yourself sowing them in with the ornamentals every year. Try it with salsify too.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.